Twitter is a funny thing. Usually you (or at least, I) send out a thought which sparks a bit of a discussion, gets a few likes, might be retweeted and then it moves. Once in a while though something seems to capture people’s imagination and one has to turn off notifications and have a quiet lie down. A couple of weeks ago I said:
And this seem to have hit a nerve. You can see this same response with Ben Newmark’s excellent post “Why Target Grades Miss the Mark” which has been bouncing around Twitter all week. I would suggest that the obsession with target grades is a symptom of a system designed not to educate children but to test schools. This is problematic for a number of reasons.
Targets are only as good as the data coming in. The first issue is the way that target grades are generated. At KS4, pupils (well, schools), are judged on the progress made since a test at the end of KS2 in English and Maths. This means that a Geography student who barely studied Geography in Primary school is expected to reach the same level as one who was lucky enough to have 6 years following a rigourous geographic curriculum; if they both did as well in two completely different subjects. It also means that we get students who come to us in Year 7 who are unable to write a complete sentence but somehow achieved a level 4 in their KS2 tests. This is hardly surprising. The books and blogs by the Freakenomics team have shown again and again that if you incentivise hitting a certain target then people will do what ever it takes to hit it.
Targets are only as good as the data going through. How can you know if you are on track to hit a moving target? The stated justification for giving pupils a target grade is that you can see if they are making sufficient progress and identify those falling behind. Even if we ignore the issue with unreliable and invalid data coming in we are still left with the issue of measuring pupil progress. With the new specifications we have no grade boundaries and the boundaries will shift every year depending on the cohort taking the paper. The best I can do is look at a pupil’s work and say “Pupils who produced work like this went on to achieve X – therefore you are likely to achieve X”. The only reason I can use even this “finger in the wind” method is that I have 14 years of experience and thousands of pieces of work to draw on; I have no idea how someone new to teaching could even begin to suggest if someone was “on target” when we don’t know where that target will be.
Who is the target for? Then we move on to the heart of the issue. Who is the target actually for? Has any kid ever benefitted from being told their target grade? I can see that it might be useful for a pupil who is coasting to be able to see that they aren’t fulfilling their potential. Might. At best. But a pupil who has been given a target of a 3? How can that ever be of use to them? What are they going to do with that information?
It seems perfectly clear that target grades have nothing to do with children and everything to do with holding schools and teachers to account. If it is of no benefit to our pupils, and may in fact be harmful to their education, I’d say we have a moral duty to ignore them.
I think the solution is extremely simple. All pupils have the same target. “Produce the best work you can”. As a department we have spent a lot of time discussing what we mean by excellent work. We have a very clear idea of the standard of work that we are looking for and have created examples of this work ourselves and displayed examples of it produced by our pupils. This is what we are all working towards. When we are giving feedback to pupils about their work we use these examples as models and talk about the next steps needed to get there.
Not all will make it to that standard, or at least not all will be able to produce that standard in the exam, but I am sure they will get a lot closer if they aim for this than for some sort of badly defined target grade.